Dr. Bruce Ivins wasn't the first 'person of interest' revealed to the media by the FBI and the Justice Department. Former suspects Richard Jewell, Wen Ho Lee and Steven Hatfill have all undergone the trial by media only to be found innocent after the damage is done. Former ABC reporter and current FBI spokesperson John Miller explains the deliberation behind naming names.
[CLIP] JOSEPH PERSCICHINI: Painstaking investigation led us to the conclusion that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins was responsible for the death, sickness and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailing and that it appears, based on the evidence, that he was acting alone. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The FBI's Joseph Perscichini Wednesday laying out the anthrax case for a room full of reporters and cameras. Sure enough, the evidence against the late Dr. Ivins was impressive. He was one of a small number of Fort Dietrich scientists with access to the killer spores, he had a long history of mental instability, he had allegedly provided a false sample of anthrax in the early stages of the probe to throw investigators off the scent, he had a history of sending anonymous letters.
And in an email to a colleague days before the first anthrax deaths, he used phrasing that resembled the threats in the anthrax mail. Circumstantial as it is, a pretty strong case.
But the government thought it had a strong case against Steven Hatfill, too, and against the late Richard Jewell, once sweated [?] as the lone suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombing, and against Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist portrayed in The New York Times as a Chinese spy.
Law enforcement leaks to eager reporters had tarred them, all of which made the week's stunning anthrax revelations and the press conference confusing to process. Was this finally the real deal, and Ivins' suicide an admission of guilt?
Or perhaps was Ivins another hapless victim of FBI persecution? The recent history of government bungling hung over the coverage like a pall, resulting in the odd spectacle of news organizations pressuring the Justice Department for every last detail while simultaneously searching for evidence that the evidence was flawed.
The irony was not lost on John Miller, a former ABC news reporter, now assistant director for public affairs at the FBI. JOHN MILLER: I find, having been on both sides of this fence, that there is no shared sense of responsibility here. There is intensive criticism, ironically, by the media for so‑called government leaks by anonymous sources, especially in cases where individuals later turn out to be perhaps not the right subject of the investigation, yet it is the same media that put pressure on people, try to pull information out of them, then publish it, and then seem to be shocked and turn to blame the government.
I find the lack of shared responsibility kind of compelling. BOB GARFIELD: One of the reasons for Wednesday's press conference was to reassure the country that the case was actually solved. It seemed to me that there was another reason as well, and that was to address the tremendous amount of skepticism from Ivins' colleagues and even some of his victims that this guy could possibly could possibly have been the killer.
To me, anyway, it looked like the government was saying, no, no, really, wolf, wolf! And a lot of the villagers were tired of running up the hill. JOHN MILLER: I would disagree with all of that. The reason for the press conference is, we had an obligation to disclose to the victims and to their families, the information we had. To do so, though, we had to make certain documents public. Once that happened, there's also a larger public that still suffers from anxiety, and they needed to be reassured.
And, thirdly, Congress was actually a target of the attacks and has always had a strong interest in where the case was. And we've had prohibitions from being able to brief them in detail because of some of those legal rules.
So we had three core audiences, and we had to tell them what we had. It wasn't that we wanted to convince skeptics. BOB GARFIELD: But hold on, John. In each of those core audiences, there were skeptics going quite public with their skepticism about the case that the FBI was going to present. JOHN MILLER: We have nothing to sell here. This isn't a marketing effort. We have an obligation in terms of disclosure. We were trying to meet that obligation. And what I've seen over the last couple of days, which is predictable, and you've made this point pretty well is, you know, people say, well, questions linger. It's not an air‑tight case. You know, the only air‑tight cases happen on TV at night on CSI. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] JOHN MILLER: In every case that ever mattered, questions, there were lingering questions. That is the nature of the beast. In fact, that's why in our legal system we are expected to take things to court and prove them beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond the shadow of a doubt. And that is where this case is. BOB GARFIELD: Do you disagree that the FBI and the Justice Department were at pains, considering the recent history of these high‑profile investigations into the wrong guy, to give more disclosure than it's typically comfortable with? I mean, I just can't believe that what happened in that history didn't inform how you handled this. JOHN MILLER: It certainly informed how we handled this to the extent that there was great pain over issues involving Richard Jewell. There was obviously a lot of discussion and lessons learned from issues involving Wen Ho Lee, and disclosures in those cases.
And when we got into the issue of Dr. Ivins, I think you can see that that investigation carried on for a period of years without his name leaking out, and that's because there was a very concentrated effort to contain that information by very responsible people who worked very hard to maintain the security around that information. I think that because there wasn't any leak of that, it certainly shows that worked. BOB GARFIELD: John, thank you very much, as always, for joining us. JOHN MILLER: Thanks, Bob. Always good to be here. BOB GARFIELD: John Miller is assistant director for public affairs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.